Councillor elected fraudulently, tribunal finds, but voters won’t have to go back to the polls

A long-running review into voter fraud that threatened to send 46,000 people back to the polls in Melbourne’s northern suburbs ended Thursday when a tribunal found Merri-bek’s councillors were properly elected.

However, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal accepted former Labor councillor Milad El-Halabi, who has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges, was elected through fraud.

Former Merri-bek councillor Milad El-Halabi (left) and wife Dianna arrive at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Monday.Credit:Jason South

VCAT vice-president Michael Macnamara did not suggest who was behind that fraud, but found that on the balance of probabilities, El-Halabi did benefit from it and was not duly elected.

El-Halabi, his wife, Dianna, and daughter Tania have been committed to stand trial on allegations they stole ballots from letter boxes in the Glenroy area and fraudulently filled them out when he contested the north-west ward of Merri-bek Council – then City of Moreland – in the 2020 local government elections.

All three have all pleaded not guilty.

For more than two years, VCAT has separately considered whether the postal vote was tainted so badly that it needed to be voided. VCAT did not make findings about who was responsible for any voter fraud, rather, it considered electoral issues.

The tribunal on Thursday accepted that voter fraud affected the election of El-Halabi and that he was not duly elected.

VCAT will not throw out the election result, finding the current councillors represented the wishes of voters in the north-west ward after El-Halabi resigned a year ago and was replaced in a countback.

Geoff Lake, acting for independent councillors Oscar Yildiz and Helen Davidson, told a hearing last month the case probably represented “the first election for public office in Australia in the modern era where the result has been affected by vote tampering”.

He was critical of the Victorian Electoral Commission’s commitment to the case.

The tribunal said it was “difficult to disagree with the proposition that the hearing and determination of this proceeding has been inordinately delayed” and that it was “plainly unsatisfactory” there was no outcome after more than two years regarding an election for a four-year term.

Barrister Kathleen Foley, representing the commission, rejected the criticism. She has repeatedly said, “This is not a royal commission into the VEC”.

The tribunal heard about 300 fraudulent ballots were probably included in the count. An unusually high number of people – 104 – voted twice in the election and 83 of those ballots were deemed suspicious and were not included in the count.

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